What is it with women and apologies? I’m sorry to say that we do it too much. This week the novelist Sloane Crosley wrote in the New York Times about her fascination with saying sorry unnecessarily. Women, she wrote, are by far the most apologetic gender, an observation prompted by her own triple apology in a restaurant when she was served a salad covered in dirt. Of course the gritty salad was not her fault. But she still felt the need to express regret for not eating it, for complaining about it and then for rejecting the (wrong) replacement salad.
Crosley argues that saying sorry is the female “act of revolt”. It’s a passive-aggressive defence mechanism, designed to shame someone else into realising that they are the one who should have said sorry (and brought a better salad in the first place). She sees women’s use of “sorry” as a verbal tic. It’s “the Trojan horse for genuine annoyance”. Men are not immune either, though, she adds, “in particular, British men”.
I can report from the field that she is right. For the past six months I’ve been previewing my Edinburgh show Say Sorry to the Lady across the UK. I have asked hundreds of people from Loch Lomond to Tunbridge Wells to fill in “Ministry of Apology” cards with their anonymous apologies and also, crucially, requests for apologies. The idea is to get it all out in the open, so we can be done with this sorry business once and for all.
Though the cards are unsigned, the gender of the respondents is often obvious and there is a sharp divide between men and women. Men apologise jokily. Women take it seriously. Men use it as an opportunity to mess around. Women want revenge.
Psychologists have long since established that women use apology for a variety of reasons, mostly to smooth social tension before any tension has even arisen. Perhaps it’s an almost maternal way of making everyone feel at ease. Or maybe it’s a coded message that says: “Don’t mind me, I’m a doormat.” Which is why this nonsense must stop.
There’s the female pre-emptive apology that assumes mounting anger in the other person, for instance “sorry I’m late”, when you’re not even that late. This allows the other person to take a higher status and establish that you’re not a challenge to them. There’s the awkwardness-avoidance apology: “Sorry, did you want to sit down?” when someone clearly wants to sit but is too nervous to ask. And there’s the classic Sloane Crosley unnecessary apology: “Sorry, is there something gross in my food?” When you know there is something gross in your food, this is not an apology: it’s a non-assertive complaint. Why not just complain?
Interestingly, under the anonymous guise of the Ministry of Apology, both genders have seemed equally keen to link politics and apology. Apologies have been demanded from Ed Miliband (“because it didn’t work”), Nigel Farage (“because you have ruined the colour purple for everyone”), Michael Gove (“because of everything”), George Osborne (“no explanation necessary”) and David Cameron (variations on “see you next Tuesday” and “shut the front door”). For some reason Sebastian Coe came in for a particularly brutal kicking in Tunbridge Wells. In Bath a father expressed regret about a lie that got out of hand: “Sorry for telling my son I was the lead singer in The Kinks.” In Stepney a German man expressed contrition: “Because of the guy fighting Mr Churchill.” In Leicester a man apologised to Paul McCartney for thinking he was dead.
What’s interesting, though, is the fervour – always from women – of the demand for apologies. They want it to be someone else’s turn to say sorry. Women are done with apologising. This is payback time. So many women asked for extra “I’d like to demand” cards in Brighton that I ran out.
Crosley argues that the many sorrys of women are taking up valuable time that could be spent “relaying accurate impressions of what we want”. The Ministry of Apology cards suggest that what women want most of all is for other people to say sorry to them more frequently – ideally at the point of insult. The apologetic worm is turning.
The trouble is that, regardless of gender, when we do get a sorry, we don’t believe it, as was expressed in Teddington: “I want an apology from Nick Clegg (still). Because he didn’t mean it the first time.”
An inadequate apology is surely the soil-flecked radicchio leaf of British public life. It lingers on the palate long after it has been returned to the kitchen. But please don’t apologise for sending that crap back – particularly if you’re a woman.
• Viv Groskop’s show Say Sorry to the Lady is at the Stand Comedy Club, Edinburgh, 5-30 August
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